It’s hard to have perspective when you’re in something. I just came down to the underground train platform in downtown Berkeley and the moment I passed the point on the short stairway where my view was the platform instead of the upper terminal, bam that was it, I was in. And now, guess what, the train approaches. I’m on the platform. Walking towards the train door, and, I’m part of the seat grabbing rush! That was different because the transition was accompanied by a stressful activity. Instead of a visual instantaneous transition it was not only invisible, but somehow unappreciated. I look up for a moment and see ranks of people looking at their phones. Or more exactly ranks of seated people all wearing dark clothes, and I happen to see one person focused on her phone. And I glance to the right and the person next to me is holding her phone. Accompanied by a frenetic clicking noise that it turns out is the seat rattling. Turns out her phone screen is dark and she’s looking at the blank screen.
Weeks later, months later let’s be honest, I still think of her looking at her blank smartphone screen and I think how often I’ve turned to the phone knowing it will hold something for me but not necessarily knowing what. Like turning on the TV and channel surfing. One step back from surfing the internet, surfing my own unique but similar world of things. And God help me how different is that, really, from a blank screen?
I’m sure more goes on around me, and different things than I realize, far more than I know. My question is not only Does it Matter to me, but is it even likely there is anything I can do to make it matter? Look inside. The truth is in there, carried with me from transition to transition, whether cleanly accomplished from station lobby to platform or murkily, rushing into a train without full awareness of my surroundings. In all cases I carry with me an image of what I imagine is around me.
What matters to me has to do with its proximity in space and time. I honestly don’t remember whether I read that in a Buddhist book on meditation and life perspective or the book on Machine Learning that I’m reading. OK, pretty sure it was the machine learning book but it really could have been either one. That is a meta thought that matters to me because it consolidates and points to the area I explore in my writing. I like to call it the moment. The moment is what is here now. I believe there is a word for this in machine learning, and there is a dimension to it that goes beyond proximity in time and space. That dimension is accesibility. I make up in my head most of what I believe I know about my surroundings, therefore most of what happens right now, right next to me, is inaccessible. So it may as well not be proximate. I also have a feeling there is more than one dimension of accessibility within the realm of awareness.
What do I turn to to find out what’s around me? The smartphone. If I do this while I’m on the BART train I bring a different set of things into my awareness. The email a client just sent from Paris. And I lose touch with the people on the train with me. So what? The main problem I see is the question of What am I In? If I am no longer in the train but have stepped onto another platform, into another room, an email room, then OK but what are the characteristics of that room? Can people see me, understand where I’m coming from, catch my attention and communicate as fully as possible with me? I don’t know. I read the email from Paris and I gather the transaction we’re discussing is a lost cause. She wants way more than the building can likely sell for at this time. My job would be to make this Owner proximate with someone who can actually pay her price. That may take time, yet there is the chance that this Buyer is out there even now, standing in front of her property looking at it. Yet Buyer and Seller are not proximate to each other.
I sit outdoors at a cafe in Berkeley and to whom am I proximate? I distance myself from my email, from home, from work, and here I am. It’s an early fall day not really Indian Summer but sunny and OK for sitting outside in a sweater. People are coming and going and of course I’m not really close to them. I am significantly alone…although sharing this space, being seen by these others. The short order cook comes out and presses down the garbage. I smile and wave to him and he says “hi” so happily. How can I call this alone? He remembers me from ten years ago when my son was a toddler. He hasn’t changed much but he works so hard, and he seems a bit sad. Florencio. His name that of the city where I began writing about moments almost twenty years ago. The hard work he cheerfully endures so different from the situations that I have been in these past decades, yet…he helps me recall Florence, and that ties together my passion for writing and travel over my lifetime. Even though (did he say he has four children?) it doesn’t seem like he can travel much, as he puts on his helmet and wheels his bicycle into the street I wonder where he has been, the man who is always at the cafe. I’m often at a cafe, just not always his.
I’m proximate to Florence and Florencio and an endless string of cafes and emails and photographs of places. And of course stories that begin to tie them together into a meta-place where old men press down garbage for students and old men and women who scribble in journals long after their coffee is cold and bitter as death.